Bill Yosses, the current White House pastry chef says pie is the all-time favorite in the Obama White House, but adds that “The dessert that was the biggest hit last year was a sugar cookie in the shape of the First Family’s dog, Bo. This year we have a black and yellow bumblebee to celebrate the first-ever White House beehive. Cookies are huge here. We make five to six kinds of dough and freeze it. Then every day during the holiday season we roll it out and bake and decorate. We easily make up to 15,000 to 20,000 cookies for the holidays.”
Desserts and sweets served in the White House reflect the culinary history of the United States. The patterns of cooking, eating, and serving food in the White House originally relied heavily on the British heritage of the Thirteen Colonies, a pattern that generally continues until the present day, as indicated by Yosses’s comment about pie. Although wars and economic depressions plagued the nation from time to time, the fare served in the White House, particularly for formal and official events, remained rooted in traditions that dated back to the first days of the colonies. Other influences on White House desserts included the family heritage of the president and his wife, the geographical location from which the president came, food trends of the times, available ingredients, and protocols of the day
In November 1800, John Adams became the first American president to live in the White House. Like him, a few of the first presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, spent significant amounts of time in France as diplomats, exposed to French culinary practices. Furthermore, the British aristocracy, during the 18th century, developed a taste for French cuisine which influenced the tastes of the American colonists. Ingredients, and their availability, also affected dessert choices. Fresh lemons and oranges, available in Britain for some time due to commerce with Spain, emerged in American desserts through trade originating in the West Indies. Later, during the administration of Benjamin Harrison, the menu for Christmas 1890 read “Florida Oranges.”
At the very first reception held in the White House, on New Year’s Day, 1801, John Adams served cakes and pies, and any number of puddings, trifles, and other sweets. A few years later, Thomas Jefferson hired a French chef, Honoré Julien, and served ice cream at many of his official functions, as Congressman Manasseh Cutler of Massachusetts related about a dinner served on February 6, 1802: “Ice cream very good … .” Jefferson’s cooks relied on Menon’s La cuisinière bourgeoise, published in Paris in 1746.
Many of the cooks who worked in the White House were African Americans, many of whom who were slaves. And James Monroe’s family served Jumbals/Jumbles, small cookie-like cakes rich with molasses and ginger with a long history in English cooking. Ulysses S. Grant’s wife Julia took on an Italian chef named Melah, who doctored up Grant’s favorite rice pudding and gingerbread. Other, homier desserts such as bread pudding appeared on First Family tables after informal suppers.
Menus consistently appeared written in French over the years, as in the case of the desserts served at a White House ball on February 5, 1862, during the administration of Abraham Lincoln: Chocolate Bavarian, Charlotte Russe à la Parisienne, Fancy Cakes, Meringues, Orange Glacé, and Biscuit Glacé. Cookbooks of the time, specifically devoted to sweets and available to cooks – Eliza Leslie’s Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1832) and Eleanor Parkinson’s The Complete Confectioner (1864) – detailed the steps for creating a number of French-influenced desserts, but these cookbooks also included desserts peculiar to American cuisine, such as Indian pudding and fruit or cream pies, among others, especially pumpkin pie, a favorite of Presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton.
Between 1850 and 1900, tremendous changes occurred in the way American procured, stored, and cooked their food. Some of these changes included the rise of rapid rail and sea transportation; refrigeration; expansion of different types of canned foods; commercial production of butter (which began in the United States in1861); and commercial baking powder. The invention of the wood-burning stove also impacted cooking and allowed cooks to bake cakes and bread in a way never before possible. Refrigeration (or ice boxes) increased in urban America – prior to that, people relied on ice houses, as at Jefferson’s Monticello. And perhaps most revolutionary of all, the switch from loaf sugar to granulated sugar, which became more widely available in 1871.
Many of the recipes, even up to the 21st century, reflect the preferences of the original occupants of the White House: fresh fruit in the form of pies, mousses and puddings, Petits Fours, ice cream and sorbets, Floating Island, and trifles. President U. S. Grant served Petits Fours at a birthday, with the entire menu written in French. Jack and Jackie Kennedy served Petits Fours at many luncheons and dinners, as did Barack and Michelle Obama for a state dinner on November 24, 2009 honoring Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India. White House chefs strove to serve desserts that reflected the cultural and historical origins of distinguished guests.
President and Mrs. Obama, in keeping with the food fashions of 21st-century America, served fresh Meyer lemon steamed pudding sauced with huckleberries at a state dinner on March 14, 2012 for David Cameron, the British prime minister, pudding being a dessert choice harkening back to the early days of the American colonies. In spite of the early French influences, desserts tended to gravitate toward American tastes and habits more often than not.
Since the beginning of the United States as an independent nation, 43 men have served as president, with Grover Cleveland serving 2 non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th presidencies. Each president left a political legacy. And each left a culinary patrimony confirming the archetypal American sweet tooth.
A look at the desserts served in the Obama White House confirms it – the pattern of baking still points toward America’s original British culinary heritage: Sticky Toffee Pudding, Steamed Lemon Pudding, Gingerbread Cake, Baked Apples, Cranberry Upside-Down Cake, Berry Cobbler, Sweet Potato Pie, Huckleberry Pie, etc.
Note that, as everyone knows, Meyer lemons did not exist during the early days of the Republic, but lemon pudding certainly showed up on dinner tables, and Mary Randolph’s The Virginia-housewife (1824) included a recipe for the pudding, a distinctly British concoction.
3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon zest
3 large eggs, separated
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice (70g)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1. Heat oven to 320F
2. Butter six individual custard dishes and coat with sugar
3. Place a folded towel on bottom of a roasting pan and boil water for water bath.
4. Whisk the sugar and flour together; set aside.
5. In a separate bowl, whisk the yolks and butter until smooth; whisk in the milk, lemon juice, salt and lemon zest until blended; whisk the flour mixture into this. (Note: the batter will be very liquid)
6. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the above mixture.
7. Immediately ladle into the custard cups and place in the prepared baking pan filled halfway with hot water. Bake until the puddings are puffy and golden on top, about 50 minutes.
8. Serve warm
Makes 6 individual servings.
Cannon, Poppy and Patricia Brooks, The Presidents’ Cookbook (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968).
Gilette, Mrs. F. L. and Ziemann, Hugo. The White House Cook Book (Chicago: The Werner Co., 1887).
Hanny, John R. Secrets from the White House Kitchens (Gordonsville, VA: LaMarque Publications LLC, 2010).
Klapthor, Margaret Brown, The First Ladies Cook Book: Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of the United States (New York: Parents Magazine Press, 1969).
Landau, Barry H., The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
Mesnier, Roland. All the Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty-five Years in the White House: A Memoir (New York: Flammarion, 2007).
Scheib, Walter. White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).
Smith, Marie, Entertaining in the White House (Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books, 1967).
*In light of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which will seem like ancient history to anyone under the age of approximately 58, I must say that for me, the assassination was a pivotal point. I was a young teenager determined to be a Peace Corps volunteer, because JFK’s call to serve resonated with me, corny as it might sound. And I did become a volunteer, in Paraguay. The moment I heard of JFK’s killing is a moment I can call up and reach back in time and be that innocent kid again for a moment, the shock of the announcement coming over the school intercom, the looks on the faces of my fellow students, the gush of tears, the question “Why?” still being asked after all these years. The only other event that comes close to that one is 9/11.
As so many commentators have said over the years, the assassination changed America in many ways. So much followed after that: Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Summer of Love, more assassinations (RFK and MLK), Watergate, etc. Perhaps all of it would have happened as it did, and maybe it would not have.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen